Keyboardist Page McConnell (of mega-grossing jam band Phish) and his side project Vida Blue (named after the Hall of Fame pitcher) have injected a dose of electronic salsa soul into their latest album, The Illustrated Band. And that dosage has been administered by a hometown disc doctor and his staff of Latin surgeons: DJ Le Spam and the Spam Allstars. Even the appropriately cartoonish cover art is straight out of South Florida, drawn in the distinctive style of native son Lebo.
McConnell hooked up with DJ Le Spam, a.k.a. Andrew Yeomanson, while vacationing in Miami this past March. Hearing the Spam Allstars' mix of turntablism, funk, salsa, soul, and more at Little Havana's Hoy Como Ayer, McConnell could not resist and sat in with the band. Soon after, Le Spam returned the favor when he made guest appearances at two Vida Blue shows in the Northeast. Less than two months after Le Spam and McConnell met, the recording of The Illustrated Band at Miami Beach's Middle Ear Studios was complete.
The Illustrated Band sounds much more like the Spam Allstars' Latin Grammy-nominated ¡Fuacata! Live than Vida Blue's self-titled debut release. Le Spam drops a number of random samples: the sounds of shooting from old-school arcade favorite Galaga, the calls of a monkey, and en español's rrrroll of the r. Latin rhythms and furious scratching interplay with the walking bass line of Oteil Burbridge (the Allman Brothers), and McConnell's spacey Rhodes is ambient and effect-processed, spiraling upward to an unknown climax. Russell Batiste's (the Funky Meters) steady drumming is augmented by the Allstars' Tomas Diaz on timbales and Lazaro Alfonso on assorted percussion. The Allstars' horn section, saxophonist AJ Hill and trombonist John Speck, along with flautist Mercedes Abal, play sparse lines at some times and triumphantly driving solos at others, lending the music a salsa-type feel. Though this is Vida Blue's album, all of the members of the Spam Allstars let loose, and every person on the record is given an opportunity to shine.
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It may be time for these folks to consider quitting their day jobs. All are members of other recording and touring groups, but The Illustrated Band may be better than all of their recorded output together. This album is explosive and eclectic, possessing a unique sound that could come only from South Florida.